Saturday, October 12, 2013

Schiff in Seattle

In an age where the arts celebrate the personality of the performer and the idea of performer-as-hero, rather than the music, it is reassuring to have someone like Andras Schiff who, in spite of his enormous talent, remains true to his art, and refuses to be seduced by the currents of commercialism so rampant in music today.

Last evening, Mr. Schiff graced the stage of Seattle’s Benaroya Hall at the invitation of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and performed J. S. Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations for a packed house and a very attentive audience (including one incredibly attentive seeing-eye dog in front of us.)

Like many others, I first encountered the Goldberg’s through Glenn Gould’s stunning debut recording on Columbia Records. For me, the impression that record made was so staggering that for a couple of decades, I find myself unable to listen to anyone else play the piece. But after hearing Mr. Schiff performing Book One of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in Vancouver last year, I decided that I had to make the trek to Seattle to attend this performance.

Schiff plays the Goldberg Variations observing all the repeats. On top of the technical and musical challenges of which there are many, any artist playing the Goldberg must capture the attention of the audience for an unbroken 75 minute. From the first note of the Aria to the final notes of the reprise of the same Aria at the end, his playing certain captivated my attention. Mr. Schiff creates a beautiful sound at the piano, and he certainly employs all the resources of the modern instrument, while being faithful to Baroque performance practices, to create a colourful performance of this incredible work. As I remarked in my piece on Schiff’s performance of the Well Tempered Clavier last year, his playing is certainly markedly different from Gould’s more (deliberately) monochromatic interpretation – I cannot help associate the way Gould played with his fondness for black and white movies. Both approaches are equally valid, of course, and the contrast between the two artists – much like two equally great painters painting the same subject – is what makes Bach’s great work continually valid and moving centuries after they were written. Most importantly, Schiff, like Gould, was and is able to touch upon the spiritual dimension of these variations that is, of course, the core of the music.

At the end of Schiff’s performance, the audience (bless their hearts) remained silent until the very last sound died away and then, as one, stood up, cheering Bach, and the wonderful man who brought this great work alive for us.

After repeated curtain calls, Schiff returned and rewarded us generously, playing (“With the pedal,” he added) the entire Sonata in E Major, Op. 109 by Ludwig van Beethoven. He indicated that it is difficult to really play anything after the Goldberg’s, but thought this would be an appropriate work to play. I think I understood his thinking, that he wanted to play a work that is just as exalted and spiritually uplifting as the Goldberg Variations.

Schiff has, in recent years, been devoting his efforts to performing and recording the Beethoven sonatas. I have not heard his Beethoven interpretation before, but if last night’s performance of the Op. 109 was any indication, I believe his other Beethoven performance would be well worth our attention. It is perhaps no mere coincidence that Op. 109 ends with a set of theme and variations, with the theme returning at the end.

During the long drive home to Vancouver, I was filled with a sense of gratitude, for Bach, and for this humble and soft-spoken artist for bringing us Bach’s work that, in Glenn Gould’s words, “observes neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor real resolution, music which, like Baudelaire’s lovers, ‘rests lightly on the wings of the unchecked wind.’ It has, then unity through intuitive perception, unity born of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved, and revealed to us here, as so rarely in art, in the vision of subconscious design exulting upon a pinnacle of potency.”

After a performance such as last evening’s, the world, with all its problems, does not seem like such a gloomy place after all.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Young Orchestra

Whenever I feel gloomy about the state of the world, a sure antidote is to hear young musicians play great music. Such was the case last Saturday evening, when this year’s University of British Columbia Symphony Orchestra made its debut concert under music director Jonathan Girard.  It was an exciting evening of great music played with great enthusiasm and polish.

The concert, featuring the music of Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky, opened with Ravel’s beautiful Pavane pour une Infante Défunte. Ravel claimed to have chosen the title purely for its alliterative appeal – that there was no dead princess.

Although beautifully played (especially the haunting theme played by the French horn), I felt that the performance laced a sense of forward motion, perhaps as a result of the tempo chosen by the conductor. We should probably remember Ravel’s comment to Charles Oulmont, who played the Pavane for the composer too slowly: “Watch out, little one, it’s not a Pavane défunte pour une infant”, said the amused composer – it is not the Pavane that is dead!

Also on the programme was the same composer’s Ma mère l’oye, or Mother Goose. Both the Pavane and Ma mère l’oye exist in versions for orchestra and piano, but Ravel’s mastery as a composer was such that both works sound equally idiomatic and beautiful in both guises. Mr. Girard led the young musicians in a performance of great panache, combining the delicacy and sparkle the work demands.

Of greatest interest in the evening concert was perhaps the sole work after intermission – Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary Le Sacre du primtemps (The Rite of Spring). The work is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and orchestras all over the world are performing the piece to mark the occasion. To our 21st century ear, accustomed to far greater dissonances and disorder in the music of the last century, Stravinsky’s watershed work sound positively tame today. This does not, however, take away any of the work’s originality and greatness. It is a piece that poses superhuman challenge to both individual players as well as the orchestra as an ensemble. It was indeed brave of Mr. Girard to have programmed the work in the first concert of year, with a new ensemble of relatively inexperienced young musicians.

As soon as the performance began with its now-famous bassoon solo, all my worries faded away. Mr. Girard, who clearly has a rapport with the young musicians, led them through this music with great confidence, at times almost reveling in the sound made by his players. There was never a moment that one worries about whether the players would “make it” through the many minefields scattered throughout the complex score.

During the well-deserved ovation following the performance, Mr. Girard raised the score in front of the audience, drawing our attention to this miraculous work and the genius that created it.

It was very touching to watch the young musicians as they played this music, with total dedication and commitment. For me, the concert certainly marks the beginning of a very good year for the UBC Symphony Orchestra.

I thank the young musicians for the hard work and their dedication, and eagerly await future performances by this talented ensemble.